The night before Thanksgiving, I learned how to play hand bells with my ridiculously talented musical friends, the Fisher twins. As Aubrey and Allison laid out the three bells I’d be holding for our Christmas medley, Aubrey was kind enough to give me a head’s up as she handed me a pair of black cotton gloves.
“Here, wear these because it’s going to get really painful.”
Ah, so that’s what they’re for. I had never associated playing hand bells with pain, but as soon as the girls showed me how to wedge the two larger bells into my right hand, it all made sense. They pinched the skin between my thumb and first two fingers, even with the protection of gloves. After a few practice runs picking up the bells the right way (so I don’t look like an idiot when it comes time for our performance), I tried to ignore the pain and focus on the songs instead. At first it was kind of like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, but after making the mental switch from interpreting sheet music for piano vs. bells, it finally clicked. I got a huge smile. Somehow, when I flicked my left wrist on the second chord of the first measure, it made the bass bell go boooooooong, bringing the melody of “O Come All Ye Faithful” to life. It was so much fun. Once we began ringing our bells in unison, the sensation of discomfort took a backseat to the incredible feeling of oneness we experienced while making music together.
So, why am I telling you all this? Other than for the sheer delight of describing how fun it was to learn a new instrument, something profound struck me as I struck those bells. I never feel like I belong more than when I’m playing music collaboratively.
As with all things that require people to work toward a common goal, playing music emphasizes how each person has a unique role to play. Music is much like a puzzle. Until all the right pieces are in place, you can’t appreciate the whole picture. God designed human beings the same way. When we each function in our roles, we create harmony out of disparate parts and embody a masterpiece. Nobody has an unnecessarily role. No notes are out of tune.
As someone who often feels like the odd one out, this epiphany was deeply comforting. Especially at Christmastime, I can struggle with things like loneliness or longing. Perhaps I don’t always feel like I belong at a party or even a church service, but when I pick up an instrument and play the notes that only I have the ability to play, those insecurities disappear. At social gatherings you have to navigate things like small talk and what to do with your hands, but collaborating with others musically bypasses all that because everybody knows exactly what they need to do. Here, everyone has a voice and carries the same weight. It creates community faster than most things I know.
Learning to play piano was one of the greatest blessings of my life because, through it, I’ve been able to cultivate some of the most life-giving and joy-filled moments. This is no small thing. To replace loneliness and longing with community and satisfaction (even if temporarily) is indeed a gift, hopefully for us and for those listening. Playing music reminds me that there are no extra parts or unnecessarily people—only handcrafted instruments in a great symphony, where everyone belongs and has a purpose. Sometimes we clash, and sometimes the noise is dissonant and ugly. But if we keep practicing, it will always get better as we get better at loving other people and working together.
I didn’t expect to be so filled while practicing those three clunky hand bells in the Fishers’ studio. But it was such a beautiful reminder that, even on a wintry night when the cold settles into my heart and my bones, there’s a God who handcrafted me, sees me, and loves me enough to let me realize it sometimes. Today, I hope you cling to the truth that, no matter what your hands find to do, you are a masterpiece that absolutely has a part to play. And hey! After I give my hands a rest, maybe I’ll be ready to learn how to play six bells instead of three.
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard
*I’d love to share my favorite Spotify playlist with you, called “A Very Folksy Christmas.” It’s a a unique blend of traditional and modern tunes by mostly indy artists, and the last song is a hand bell version of “Silent Night.” I think you’ll really enjoy it! Click below to launch Spotify and follow the playlist.
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Bailey Gillespie works as adjunct faculty and Director of Academic Engagement at William Jessup University. She lives near Sacramento, California and loves connecting with people over wellness, faith, and the arts. Her writing has appeared on Foundling House, Voice of Courage, and The Rabbit Room. Read more at baileygillespie.com or follow her on Instagram and Goodreads.